The Black Lives Matter Committee at the First Unitarian Society of Milwaukee which I chair, manged to have a successful event on Nov. 18th. We had a screening of The Blood is at the Doorstep which tells the story of the killing of Dontre Hamilton by Milwaukee Police Officer Christopher Manney on April 30, 2014. The Black community arose in protest and people from across Milwaukee including the Unitarian Universalists joined in solidarity. This movement achieved many positive results including the firing of Officer Manney, a commitment by Mayor Tom Barrett that police would undergo 40 hours of training to help them better understand how to deal with persons who were living with a mental illness. In addition the City of Milwaukee made a $2.3 million settlement with the Hamilton family after they filed a lawsuit. However, neither the District Attorney John Chisholm nor US Department of Justice filed charges in the case against Manney and he was later awarded disability based upon the stress that the shooting had caused him.
The story was well known throughout the community and the movie has been shown several times since its premier at the Milwaukee Film Festival in 2017. However, there is still interest in learning more about what people could do to assist the Mothers United For Justice, an organization which Maria Hamilton, Dontre’s mother, founded. News of the event took place through word of and Facebook. Black Lives Matter successfully recruited three co-sponsors: Mothers Against Gun Violence, Mothers For Gun Sense and Progressive Mothers of Wisconsin.
I chaired the event and helped recruit the sponsors. Maria Hamilton was the featured speaker and spoke about her goal of being able to mentor parents like herself who lost loved ones to police violence. Mary Devitt, one of the founders of Black Lives Matter, spoke of her commitment to finding justice for the Hamiltons. Khary Penebaker of Mothers For Gun Sense spoke at the event. He detailed his experience as the son of a mother who had committed suicide with a gun. People from the co-sponsoring groups contributed a lot to the success while coping with illnesses and injuries. Like the song said, I get by with a little help from my friends.
I am struggling. I thought I had found some answers for my foot problems by getting new orthopedic shoes from the VA on Friday. But today my feet were as painful as ever and I did not put on the shoes. I also was hit with some potentially devastating personal news that may or may not be true. I will have to wait for about a month to find out. I have cried a few times and tried listening to music. Joan Baez and Simon and Garfunkel mostly. Meanwhile I received confirmation that a fitbit is on the way as a reward from my insurance app. I have been earning points for exercise and the new shoes were going to help me. I made 11,000 steps Friday. I had noticed that my pattern had been to go all out for a few days and then be practically inert. I am hoping to become more consistent. But the wild card is what will happen with this personal news.
Sometimes I regret not playing more of a role in my nephews’ lives. My oldest nephew, John, was born the year I graduated from high school. When I was graduating from high school, I was experiencing deep depression. I felt loss from a woman I loved. I was protesting the war in Vietnam. I wanted to be a part of history. I was a horny male teenager. The depression was the most difficult of those things to understand. I remember writing letters back home in lower case to try to make them understand I was not doing well. Depression was a family characteristic. My mother and older sister have also lived with it. When you are 17 or 18 everything seems so overwhelming. The depression was about what my mind was saying about feeling empty and lonely.
Nobody who is that age is old enough to understand. If there is one thing I regret I wish I had learned to understand myself sooner. My younger brother also lived with a mental illness triggered by use of hallucinogens. I believe that I survived because of a combination of nature and nurture. James left home as a teenager and went west at a time many people were feeling alienated and wanting to get away from home. I was old enough to go to Howard University and be a part of history and the largest anti-war demonstrations in American history.
When you are young and you are struggling you have more options than I saw as a teenager. For me, the best choice after dropping out of college was the military. But when I returned to civilian life, I struggled with economic security. I heard the voices of my nephews but I was in no shape to be able to help them. Now that things seem to be different and I have gotten help I am no longer being driven by depression or mania. I am doing well. I was part of my niece’s life at an event to retire the flags last week. I cannot go back into the 1970s but I am proud to part of the present.
Nor was I cooked and eaten by hungry people. What I was asked how our Black lives matter meeting went, that was my response. One and one half days have passed and I am still alive. We have begun the trip and are fairly civilized. The group includes people who are fairly active in matters of racial justice and me. For me, racial justice lately has been the ability to earn a living without fear of eviction and having the same benefits as my co-workers. For people who don’t know, being a peer support specialist is my fourth or fifth career and it is the one the has lasted the longest. I have been a librarian, a cooperative developer, a grant writer and a day care worker. Since those other careers faded away, one can conclude that either I was not especially skilled or I am better suited for what I am doing now. These jobs sometimes paid decent money but unfortunately did not last more than a few years.
Peer support has often been a low paying career in which I had to fight to earn a living wage. I am wearing the first pair of glasses ever bought with company provided vision benefits. Either my previous jobs didn’t have vision benefits or I didn’t use them. Making my life matter meant a lot of pain and struggle to survive. There was also a lot of acting out and fairly embarrassing behavior that ruined relationships. My current life is the most stable I have felt for a long time.
I now feel as though I have something to offer such as the value of my experience. I know what it means to feel ashamed that you need to depend on your family for support well into adulthood. I know about having your payroll check bounce. I know what bad and good employers are like. These are all things I bring to the struggle to making black lives matter in Milwaukee. I was the only African-American at the table for our first meeting at the First Unitarian Society, a situation I hope to change. I hope to venture out and become a part of some of the struggles my fellow members have been involved with and make a difference. I will share my vision, now that it is clear what I can see.
A few years ago the Republican controlled state legislature passed a law taking decision-making authority for mental health away from the elected county supervisors and replaced them with a group of volunteers from the community. The board includes mental health consumers, attorneys, advocates and mental health professionals. There are a lot of big decisions to be made regarding Milwaukee County mental health. The county is moving away from the model of maintaining a large mental health facility which they have been downsizing over the years by closing wards and shifting the people who lived there to community based facilities. Case management, which helps people live in the community, has already been contracted out to various agencies. These agencies help engage with consumers and connect them to services with the aim of reducing their dependence on in patient treatment, which is expensive and often very traumatic.
However, there are no guarantees in this system. We all know people in community programs who died but we can try to reduce the number of preventable deaths. We can ensure that case management provides necessary services. We can increase the number of affordable housing units. We can offer physical and mental health in a coordinated fashion and make certain that people are getting regular check ups. We can have clinics where we would want to be treated. These are very easy steps we can take in our own agencies
But what we do to guide the process of system wide reform? One way is by joining the mental health board. Imagine my surprise when a former co-worker asked me to apply to join the board, which is appointed by the county executive. I will be tossing my hat into the ring tonight to see if I can add my experience to this group. I am excited, interested and curious all at the same time. I will post some more as the process goes along.
I just listened to a story on This American Life about Alan Pean, a young African-American man who experienced a severe psychiatric breakdown while living in Houston, Texas. Alan was a college student who had previously survived a couple of episodes of manic depressive disorder. Alan came from a high achieving family with doctors including his father.
Alan found that his mind was overpowered by a delusion that caused him to jump off the balcony of his third story apartment, make his way to his car and crash through the gates. He drove toward St. Joseph Hospital, a major medical facility in downtown Houston. He crashed and totaled his car into the hospital and somehow told the emergency room staff he was having a manic episode. But he was never treated for his mental disorder. His father who is of Haitian descent arrived a few hours later and also told the staff that his son was having mental problems and yet Alan was still not evaluated by a psychiatrist.
His father left to try to arrange getting Alan help for his mental illness and shortly afterwards the staff had trouble with Alan and called for security. This turned out to be Houston police with guns who were not trained in dealing with psychiatric patients. Alan was tasered, then shot and almost killed and later charged with assault. Although the charges were later dropped there is a disturbing pattern of mental patients being shot or tasered by police who have little or no training in dealing with them.
There is a New York Times article about the incident involving Alan Pean. People need to be aware of these kinds of incidents and understand that psychiatric patients need help, not bullets. They need people trained to deescalate and force is the last thing you would ever want to use to help someone recover his or her mind.
This story raises other questions, such as what if Alan and his father had been white? Would the outcome be different? Would the hospital staff you turn to for help be able to recognize that when a white person says he needs mental help, they would hear the person and attempt to provide help? What prevents them from hearing the same statements from people of color? What information is available about the hospital you use and their policy about the use of force? How equipped are they to handle people with a mental illness? Is the person the staff calls for help going to be an armed police officer? And finally, what safe alternatives are there to hospitals for people with mental illness and how widely known are these alternatives?
I have been reading facebook posts promoting suicide prevention and talking about the need to look after one another. The need to offer support, empathy and resources. But there are so many places where vulnerable are most at risk.
Youths are at risk, people in mental hospitals are at even more risk and the most at risk of violence are in prison. I just read a story in the New Yorker about the story of a young man in the New York state prison system whose father was preparing to send of him a care package only to discover he had been buried 6 weeks earlier. The article by Jennifer Gonnerman, told how Lonnie Hamilton II learned that his son had died on March 18, 2016 when he went to the prison website. His son, Lonnie Hamilton III, had hung himself after becoming increasingly depressed in the Marcy Correctional Facility.
This is a story about an involved father who worked long hours to provide for his children only to lose one of them to crime and seeing his son torn away from the community. It is a story about failure to notify the next of kin about what was happening. There were signs especially self mutilation that should have set off a thousand alarm bells. I don’t think that the prison tried everything possible to assist Lonnie.
These kinds of tragedies happen all too often. I don’t think the prison was set up to meet the needs of a deeply troubled African American young man so he became a casualty. This is a cry for help, action and a replacement for the deconstruction. I would hate for this to happen to one of my nephews and hope people will use these stories